146: Some notes about Gil Shaham live at Zellerbach Hall

2016-04-14: Jamie got us (the Berkeley Connect students) tickets to see Gil Shaham at Zellerbach Hall. The production was a co-op with filmmaker David Michalek; with his contribution, the end result was a multimedia presentation of Bach set to mesmerizing slow-motion short films.

Is it correct to say the Bach was set to the films? The films were set to the Bach – and yet thematically I sometimes felt a disconnect that made it seem like the visuals were trying to tug at the balance of power to give themselves more prestige.

The program is subtitled “The Sonatas and Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin by Johann Sebastian Bach.” He played them by ascending BWV, 1001 through 1006 from 2000 to 2240. There were intermissions every two works. It was a long night and somewhat taxing (though less so than sitting through the 24 Paganini caprices or even the 24 Chopin studies, I think).

I walked away happy and impressed. If I have ever pretended to understand music, I should ashamedly rescind any such pretense now. I completely failed to grasp most of the form and structure behind the works presented tonight. I enjoyed them as a series of pleasing forays through dissonance and consonance, kind of like the projected films.

Some chronological notes

  • I couldn’t hear the fugal parts of the Sonata no. 1 BWV 1001. I don’t know what I fixated on to miss all the contrapuntal writing.
  • I found the whole of Partita no. 1 BWV 1002 quite wearisome. Maybe seeing all the accompanying doubles (trailing each of the four “main” dances) printed in the program set me up for disappointment.
  • By the first intermission I had worked out the source of the faraway tapping and thumping: Gil himself was moving and bobbing to the piece, occasionally bringing his foot down on the wooden stage.
  • I greatly enjoyed the opening of Sonata no. 2 BWV 1003 (“Grave”). Gil teased out some truly wondrous effects from the depths of silence in Zellerbach.
  • When the fugue in Sonata no. 2 BWV 1003 began, the projectionist lit up a table with an hourglass on the right, something I don’t recall on the left, and a human skull in the middle. There was an audible disturbance; some whispers and possibly hisses. I was a little put off by the choice of visual for the piece (really? A grim and unwarranted memento mori?), but I refrained from joining the hubbub. I was intrigued by the outbreak itself, though.
  • For the finale of the Sonata no. 2 BWV 1003, another controversial tableau lit up the screen: a medium-lit vase of flowers (a huge, poofy bouquet in a fancypants goblet-esque vase) sits on a table. A fruit or two share the space. Water droplets bounce off the leaves and petals. The modest little stream waxes mightily into a roaring downpour; the vase is toppled and falls off the table, lost from view. The stream falls undeterred for a long while, creating a huge frothy pattern like the explosion of the Death Star. At last, the flow wanes and the film fades.
    • There was a lot of laughter when it became apparent that the vase was going to fall, especially from our section (I heard Jamie most distinctly).
    • Someone had a coughing / laughing / crying / nervous fit around the time the downpour really strengthened. I don’t actually know what happened, only that there were some strange noises coming from somewhere far off. Gil looked around bemusedly like a deer in the headlights, but bravely kept fiddling away without missing a beat.
    • The applause at the end was perhaps all the more enthusiastic for the film’s impact. Not sure. It was an excellent performance anyway.
  • The Partita no. 2 BWV 1004 took my Chaconne virginity – I have only ever heard the piano arrangement from Busoni; tonight, I was lucky enough to drink in the pure original. It was more modest and more elegant by far – a wholly different experience from the barnstorming tempest from Michelangeli and Pletnev that I have in my collection. Neither is really superior or inferior; I think I would treat them separately and look for different experiences from each. This closer brought the house down and won Gil a standing ovation from a tired but wildly enthusiastic crowd. For my part, I was grinning ear to ear, maybe a little less from the strange film featuring a traditionally garbed Japanese woman fan-dancing between two gold-leaved trees.
  • The pastoral “Loure” of the Partita no. 3 BWV 1006 featured two children playing violins. They both end and draw away their bows triumphantly, breaking into laughter (and eliciting some from us).
  • The concluding Gigue of the Partita no. 3 BWV 1006 showed a familiar table holding up a piece of wet fruit. Turns out it was the falling vase tableau run in reverse; their rehearsal had paid off, and the vase was well onto the table and the final droplets receding off the top when Gil’s bow last left the violin. A beautiful ending.

Some non-chronological notes

  • It’s very nice in Zellerbach Hall. The stage isn’t as big as I imagined, but it’s big enough (and then some) for a solo violinist.
  • Maura (from Jamie’s later section) sat next to me and kept me informed with her 10 years’ of violin experience. Soon after we had acquainted ourselves, she got a selfie of us. I’m such an old man – I was caught off guard by that. She was tired but enthusiastic about the performance. She was disappointed that Gil didn’t use a baroque bow, explaining that a baroque bow is pulled far less taut than a modern one, allowing greater curvature and more strings to be bowed at once – i.e., less “staggering” on large chords. I could not distinguish when the breaks / rolls were written in the score and when they resulted from modern bowing, though; I enjoyed it all the same.
  • Gordon (from Amadeus’ earlier section) sat behind me. I got to talk to him during the second intermission; he was tired, too. We instantly agreed about how weirdly exotic it was to feature a heavily Japanese dance during the Chaconne and got to talking. He’s come all the way from Ft. Lauderdale! He enjoys the sound of the harpsichord.\



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